It seems simple enough. The idea behind the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) testing program is to keep tabs on standards. Governments and school systems can see who needs help and target policy, funding and teaching support so that all Australian students get the same opportunity to progress and be successful at school.
However the official gathering and use of NAPLAN data is not so simple. In fact it is highly complex and aspects of it are regularly challenged. The issue that took my interest was the officially announced, and widely reported in mainstream media finding that students with language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE) were doing better than students from English-speaking backgrounds (also known as non-LBOTE) in both literacy and numeracy.
My research involved looking at the LBOTE category and the widely accepted conclusion that LBOTE students were doing well. I discovered that this generalization is very unhelpful.
Some students who are speakers of language other than English are performing well on NAPLAN. On the other hand others are highly disadvantaged and their disadvantage, even their existence, is hidden in the LBOTE category.
If we are really worried about getting good results for all Australian children, educators and policy makers need to be looking at a finer grained analysis of LBOTE results in detail.
To begin the LBOTE category is very broad. It identifies all students who speak a language other than English at home, or whose parents speak a language other than English at home. What the category does not identify is the level of bilingual capacity of the student – that is, their level of proficiency in English and in their first language. The consequence of this is that LBOTE potentially includes students who are fully proficient in English, along with students in the early stages of developing academic English language proficiency- a process which can take a number of years, and more than the one year NAPLAN exemption allowed for newly arrived students.
Getting back to the bigger picture given to us by official NAPLAN results. It is not surprising that there is little difference between the average performance of LBOTE and non-LBOTE students; in fact, as reported with much fanfare, on a number of categories of the test LBOTE students appear to be doing better than non-LBOTE students. This is simply because averages are used. However a closer look shows there is a larger range of performance across the LBOTE group. There is a big tail of poor performers. So what is needed here is to find the students who are at the lower part of the range, and have a closer look to see how they are doing.
When I studied data from Queensland state schools I discovered there were indeed very distinct groups hidden in the LBOTE category and that some of these groups are performing at the lowest levels of the NAPLAN test.
One of the ways I analyzed the data was by looking at the performance of LBOTE students according to their visa category. All people who come to live in Australia from other countries (except NZ) require a visa, and these fall into two broad groups: skilled and family migrants, and refugees or those in refugee-like situations. The refugee LBOTE children were on average, performing at a much lower level than LBOTE students of migrant background.
This is a group of students who are among our most disadvantaged and in the generalised NAPLAN data given to us they are invisible.
I believe LBOTE is too simplistic a classification for reporting the complex interaction of language with NAPLAN performance. A much finer grained analysis is required if teachers, schools and systems are able to provide appropriate targeted response and ultimately, enable equity of outcome for all students.
An added layer of concern is that there have been considerable changes made to the funding of English language programs over the preceding decade.
All federally allocated government school funding for English as a Second Language (ESL) programs has now been collapsed into revised funding arrangements between state and federal governments. Some of this funding has been allocated on the basis of improvement in literacy and numeracy, as measured by NAPLAN. However, mainstream literacy intervention, which is the standard response to poor NAPLAN performance, is not helpful for ESL students, refugee children in particular. These children need specialised support to develop literacy in English as their second or additional language.
The danger is that the invisibility of language learners in current targeted programs and the use of the too broad LBOTE category for NAPLAN results is leading to a loss of focus on, or, unhelpful intervention for some of the most disadvantaged students in our school systems.
Sue Creagh is a research fellow and lecturer in TESOL at the Institute for Social Science Research and the School of Education at the University of Queensland. Before completing her PhD in 2013, Sue worked for many years as an ESL teacher with newly arrived migrant and refugee young people. Her research interests are in education policy in the field of ESL, and in the relationship between disadvantage and educational outcomes.